The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – Structural Aspects

This article is part 5 of 6 in the series Homer

The events in the Iliad span only a few weeks in the final year of the war and most of them occur outside the city-walls of Troy. In the Odyssey, the events take place over a span of ten years and at different places on the earth and in the netherworld too. While the Iliad gives us microscopic details by zooming in on time, keeping the space constant, the Odyssey gives us a telescopic view of different places at different times. The name ‘Iliad’ suggests constancy in space. In addition to the long odyssey of Odysseus and the short Telemachy of Telemachus, there are two ‘fake odysseys’ within the Odyssey – the false story that Odysseus cooks up to convince the swine-herd Eumaeus of his origin and the one he tells Penelope at first. Telemachy too is centered around Odysseus – it is the search for the father by the son. The name ‘Odyssey’ is thus apt, bringing several layers of meanings to it.

In the Iliad, all the characters on the Achaean side are away from their home. Their idiosyncrasies are seen vividly outside the comfort zone of their homes. They are all great men, heroes, with their merits and shortcomings. In the Odyssey, however, it is only Odysseus who is away from his home and for a relatively short period, his son Telemachus is away too. The rest of the characters operate from the comfortable confines of their homes in different lands, and these travelers happen to visit them.

Most of the Iliad is in the third person narrative, except when Nestor speaks of his exploits of younger days or when the heroes recall legends of Gods. In contrast to this, most of the Odyssey is in the first person narrative and the primary speaker is Odysseus himself, although his audience keeps changing. In a broad sense, the Odyssey is thus the perspective of Odysseus of the events that took place in his life. Besides, the Odyssey is also a continuation of the story of the Iliad, through the words of Menelaus, Helen and the singing bard Demodocus in the court of the Phaeacian king Alcinous. The poet in fact brings a meaningful completion to the Trojan war by having the episode of the Trojan horse narrated by Demodocus. Thus, the Odyssey, although smaller in size, accommodates even the spill-over from the Iliad but remains complete in itself. We are left wondering if Homer has re-created himself in Demodocus. Homer, too, was probably a bard, singing to the accompaniment of a lyre (thus, ‘lyrical’ poetry) under the patronage of a king. Homer makes King Alcinous say that performing artists should be respected the most in a royal court. (O. B7). (The narrative style in the Iliad and the Odyssey can be respectively identified as kavi-prauḍokti and kavi-nibaddha-prauḍokti, using the terminology of Indian literary aesthetics.)

The poet invokes the Muses and seeks their help when he sets out to describe something grand, which is too profound for mere human comprehension. He does this while describing the huge army of the Achaeans, the fights between heroes and on several other occasions. He also humbly attributes his poetic skill to the Muses. Both the epics are in medias res and the Odyssey uses the flashback technique mainly for narration. The Iliad begins with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and ends with the mourning for Hector in Troy. The Odyssey begins with the conversation between the Gods where Athene takes a prominent role and ends with the Goddess Athene bringing peace to the city of Ithaca. Thus, the Iliad starts with humans and ends with humans. The Odyssey starts with the Gods and ends with the Gods.

Figures of Speech in the Greek Epics

The number and the frequency of occurrence of the figures of speech are higher in the Iliad than in the Odyssey. This is probably because the Iliad is in the first person narrative and the details of the war, which is unfamiliar to a common man, had to be communicated by giving poetic parallels with things that he is familiar with. Also, the Odyssey expresses the emotions of the characters directly through their words. These emotions, which are universal, can be felt by a connoisseur even without additional imageries.

Similes, metaphors, personification, transferred epithets, hyperbole, synecdoche all abound in the Iliad but are rarer in the Odyssey. Refer to the long-form article titled Alaṅkāras in the Iliad of Homer: An Analysis Using the Tenets of Candrāloka of Jayadeva by the present author for a detailed exposition of the same.

Epic Simile (Homeric Simile)

An epic simile is a detailed comparison in the form of a simile which spans several lines and includes several imageries within it. It gives a complete parallel to an object or an event by comparing every aspect of it to another familiar object or an event. This was found for the first time in history in the epics of Homer, and are therefore called ‘Homeric similes’. These come as kavi-prauḍokti in the Iliad and kavi-nibaddha-prauḍokti in the Odyssey;  the former are far more gripping than the latter. The longest such simile in the works of Homer is reproduced below:

The Achaean army gets ready for the war and is urged by Athena to fight without ceasing (IL. B2. lines 455-483)

Just as a consuming fire makes a boundless forest blaze on the peaks of a mountain, and from afar can the glare be seen, so from their magnificent bronze, as they marched out, went the dazzling gleam through the sky to the heavens.

..And as the many tribes of winged birds, wild geese or cranes or long-necked swans on the Asian meadow by the streams of Caystrius, fly here and there, glorying in their strength of wing, and with loud cries settle ever onwards, and the meadow resounds, so their many tribes poured out of the ships and huts into the plain of Scamander, and the earth resounded terribly beneath the tread of men and horses. And they stood in the flowery meadow of Scamander, countless, as are the leaves and flowers in their season.

Just as the many tribes of swarming flies that buzz about the herdsman’s farmstead in the season of spring, when the milk drenches the pails, in such numbers stood the long-haired Achaeans in the plain against the men of Troy, eager to destroy them utterly.

And just as goatherds easily separate the wide-scattered flocks of goats, when they mingle in the pasture, so did their leaders marshal the men on this side and that, to enter into the battle, and among them lord Agamemnon, his eyes and head like Zeus who hurls the thunderbolt, his waist likes Ares, and his breast like Poseidon. As a bull in a herd stands out far the chiefest, since he is preeminent among cattle as they gather, such did Zeus make Agamemnon on that day, preeminent among many, and chiefest among warriors.

The poet gives the complete picture of the scene in which the Achaeans prepare themselves to fight. Several different aspects are considered and for each, an epic simile is provided. Imageries range from forest fire, wild birds, flowers, leaves, flies, domestic animals such as goats, cattle, bulls and gods such a Zeus, Ares, Poseidon. The passages are a complete audio-visual treat to the reader.

The gleam of the bronze which covered the body of the soldiers in the form of armors and the bronze of their shields and spears is compared to the flames of a forest fire. The fire also indicates the rage of the soldiers and the boundlessness of the forest blaze suggests their large numbers. The gleam could be seen from a large distance too, which again helps us visualize the combined effect of the presence of several gusty, bronze-clad warriors.

The next passage speaks of the din created by the soldiers and horses when they walk on the earth while getting ready for the war. It is compared to the loud cries of winged birds which also echo in the meadow, giving us an auditory experience of the sound. The confusion and the chaos that ensues when several men pour out from their ships and huts, is indicated by the tribes of winged birds ‘flying here and there’. Their large numbers are also indicated by the countless leaves and flowers which bloom in season.

The large numbers of soldiers and their different native tribes are indicated by comparing them with the many tribes of flies in the spring season. One can also imagine the commotion created by the soldiers by associating it with the simultaneous buzzing of many types of flies. (It is known from the Iliad that soldiers from different towns of Greece joined together to form the army of the Achaeans and that they spoke different tongues.)

Next, to settle the confusion and to establish order among men, the leaders came out to marshal the men, just like goatherds separate the flocks of goats. ‘Scattered flocks’ indicates the disorder and ‘easily separate’ indicates the command that the leaders exercised over their men.

Each part of Agamemnon's body is compared to those of the gods, describing his strength and power. He is also compared to a bull that is prominently seen amidst a herd of cattle, and also as the one who is the most powerful and preeminent.

In the above passage, by using commonplace imageries such as birds, goats, flies, bull and cattle, which are observed in everyday life, the poet helps us visualize the war scene, which one cannot see in everyday life. Thus, a common experience is used to help us visualize something uncommon. Furthermore, by using mythological imageries such as the eyes and head of Zeus, waist of Ares and breast of Poseidon, surreal characteristics of the hero Agamemnon are suggested.

To be continued...



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh

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